Language Culture

There are 11 official languages in South Africa. English is the most commonly used and understood in the cities, especially for business.  Other languages are Afrikaans (which derives primarily from 17th century Dutch and Flemish), Xhosa, Zulu, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, and Ndebele.


Although most South Africans speak English, you may still have trouble understanding them and certain phrases and expressions, as well as the accent may occasionally confuse the foreign visitor! In South African dialect, South Africa becomes “sthefrica”; transport is “trunspott”, words are “weds” and workers “wekas!” South African English could almost be classified as the 12th official language with its unique colloquialisms.

South Africa is a secular state, but all major Christian denominations are well represented. Approximately 75% of the population are Christians. The Afrikaner community largely belongs to the Dutch Reformed or its sister Protestant churches. Within the Independent Black Christian group, the Apostolic and Zionist churches are the most influential, the latter making up the largest religious body in the country. Furthermore, many Africans follow traditional belief systems (rich in oral folklore and ceremonies) or incorporate tenets thereof into their religion. Most Asian South Africans are Muslims or Hindus, and there is a sizeable Jewish community in the country.

The “Rainbow Nation” is a description coined by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu – the term captures the extraordinary diversity of races, ethnic groups, creeds and languages that characterises South Africa. Its people are gregarious, hospitable, brash, vibrant and assertive.


Apartheid has had an overwhelming influence on the culture of South Africa, and the after effects of the country’s divisive past are still with us, however, South Africans are learning to live together more harmoniously and have even begun to celebrate their differences.


Although many black South Africans have adopted European habits, strong African traditions influence the music, dance and language. There are basic similarities between traditional black cultures, though marriage customs and taboos differ. Polygamy for men is permitted, though is becoming less common, particularly in the urban areas. Cattle, especially in the rural areas, are important as symbols of wealth.


Afrikaans and English speaking whites and Indians have tended to retain the cultural traditions of their forebears, albeit with an increasing South African flavour. The Afrikaners, descendents of the early Dutch and French Huguenot settlers - primarily farmers are a proud, tough, resourceful and volatile people with the tenets of the Dutch Reformed Church and Calvinism playing a vital role in their culture. The English, descendents of the British 1820 Settlers, and Jewish (more recent migrants) on the other hand, continue to dominate the business life of the country, controlling the mining, manufacturing, financial and retail sectors.


These factors, together with the economic reality of a wide discrepancy between a relatively small number of affluent people and the vast majority of poor and unemployed, influence day to day life in South Africa. Expatriates should be aware that social customs and conventions differ according to the various ethnic groups and cultures that make up South Africa.

Sport, food & drink, the arts, music and literature are an important part of the South African lifestyle.

Open spaces, a dry and sunny climate and inexpensive facilities make the country an ideal sporting playground. Soccer is the most popular sport in the country, followed by rugby, cricket and other sports such as netball, hockey, tennis and basketball. There are also, literally hundreds of excellent golf courses offering affordable membership and green fees. Wide open spaces offer excellent opportunities for outdoor sports ranging from horse riding to hiking, mountain climbing to angling and boating to biking. There are also exceptional facilities – at a price! – for hunting, shark-diving and 4 x 4 trailing.

South Africa’s many nationalities and cultures are reflected in its cuisine. While meat and chicken form the basis of many dishes, a wide variety of sea-food is available. Regional specialties include Cape Malay dishes; hot spicy curries and traditional Afrikaner fare including the South African barbecue, called a braai (pronounced “brigh”). South Africans enjoy entertaining at home, and you will certainly be invited to a braai if you spend any time in the country. Most South Africans love their beer and wine, and alcohol is consumed at most social functions.


When you are invited to a South African home, unless stipulated otherwise, it is likely to be a casual affair. It is appropriate to bring a bottle of wine, flowers or a small gift but anything elaborate might embarrass your hosts. Dress tends to be informal unless you have been invited to a dinner party (jacket and tie for men and a dress for women). A formal dinner is usually served at around 8.00pm and generally consists of a three-course meal, with cheese, coffee and port or brandy served at the end. Plan to socialise for a while following the meal, and an informal thank-you note or telephone call afterward is appreciated. Cocktail and drinks parties are also popular, as are private clubs or restaurants for business entertaining, and a great deal of business is conducted on the golf course.


Alcohol may not be drunk on beaches or in public places, and smoking is banned in public places and buildings, on aircraft, buses and trains. Most restaurants do however, have designated smoking areas – frequently outside on the side walk, or enclosed and heated in winter.

The arts and culture in South Africa are alive and flourishing, though under-funded.  A great variety of excellent works of art from the sophisticated to the more ‘naïve’ are produced by local artists. Township paintings, sculptures, woodcarvings, basket and beadwork and pottery from South Africa have become very popular on international markets and locally. Few tourists return home without a wooden carving of a giraffe or similar unwieldy beast!


Since the lifting of the cultural boycott, the performing arts scene has been transformed. Music and dance, epitomised by box office hits such as The Lion King, Umoja and African Footprint are blazing new trails locally and abroad.  The domestic music scene is lively and vibrant and ranges from the distinctive kwela (pennywhistle) and kwaito (African pop) of the townships, the Afrikaner’s traditional ‘boeremusiek’ to soul, jazz and reggae. Classical music and ballet draw enthusiastic audiences in large urban areas.

In general, business customs are similar to those in the West, but with an increasingly African flavour. In African culture it is customary to enquire about one’s family, health etc. before starting business discussions, and a strong emphasis is placed on relationships with rather less emphasis on time. 


Prior appointments are mandatory for business and government meetings. At the beginning and end of any encounter, it is customary to shake hands. Notice what kind of handshake you are given: black South Africans tend to give a softer lingering, warm handshake and it is appropriate to reciprocate accordingly. White South Africans on the other hand are prone to deliver “bone crunchers” so beware. Extend greetings to include questions about family or other social conversation. The safest conversational topic in South Africa is sport since most South Africans are passionate about every athletic activity. Racial politics, once a topic to avoid, has become a subject of national pride. Nevertheless, some circumspection is advisable as political opinions and allegiances differ, and criticism of either past or present governments may not be appreciated. In addition, black South Africans obviously consider the old official government terms of “Bantu” and “Native” offensive, preferring the terms “Africans” or “Black People”. Similarly, the term “ethnic group” is preferable to “tribes”.


Introductions tend to be made in order of seniority and business colleagues addressed as Mr., Mrs., and Miss until invited to do otherwise. At the first meeting it is customary to distribute business cards to each person.

In negotiations with the white business community, price will be an important aspect of any decision. In negotiations with the black business community, personal relationships and quality issues tend to be more important than price. Be prepared for bureaucratic delays and red tape.

In most ethnic groups, women do not have the same status as men, although under SA’s new government, great strides have been made in that respect. Women are now well represented in leadership positions in business, and especially government. Women form a significant part of the workforce, no longer limited to unskilled jobs. Many own small businesses or occupy positions in middle and senior management. A significant number of cabinet ministers including the Deputy President are women.

White South Africans, inspired by the Calvinistic Dutch heritage, place great importance on industry, energy and toil. This attitude has to a degree, rubbed off on members of other ethnic groups. Many South Africans, however, take their leisure seriously and are reluctant to work over weekends. The economic gulf between rich and poor has the effect of making the rewards of hard work and success vividly clear to the entire population.

South Africans are generally cordial and hospitable to foreigners and welcome the re-establishment of international business ties. Any restraint in relations with North Americans or Europeans may be due to a fear of outsiders taking over too much of the economy too quickly.  Among the poorer, unskilled South Africans, fear of taking direly needed jobs, given the country’s high unemployment has led to considerable xenophobia and aggression, particularly against black migrants from our Northern neighbours.

South Africans are generally fairly conservative in their dress, though this is changing and dress reflects the cultural diversity of the country, especially at more formal functions. The social dress code in South Africa is usually casual and similar to that of Southern California or Southern France.  Eveningwear is a little more formal and dinner jackets (tuxedos) and long dresses are preferred for formal functions.


Business dress also tends to be conservative. For men, lightweight suits or sports jackets are the norm, especially in the more formal, traditional businesses like financial institutions.  For women, a skirt and jacket/ dress and jacket ensemble is appropriate, as are smart slack suits.  Many companies have become less formal though, and on Fridays in particular dress is often casual, unless meetings with clients are scheduled.


Topless swimming and sunbathing is uncommon except on some beaches on the Atlantic Seaboard in Cape Town

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